US Secretary of Education Surprises RPS Elementary School with Honor | Govt. and politics

US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona visits Oak Grove-Bellemeade Elementary School as part of his back-to-school bus tour.

A special visitor met with students and staff at Oak Grove-Bellemeade Elementary School Tuesday afternoon: U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona parked in Richmond’s South End for a few hours in the part of his “Road to Success Back to School Bus Tour”.

Cardona made a big announcement for students by declaring Richmond Public Schools Oak Grove-Bellemeade Elementary School the first Special Olympics Unified Champion School in Central Virginia.

The Special Olympics Unified Champion Schools” is a program for schools from kindergarten through college that intentionally promotes meaningful social inclusion by bringing together students with and without developmental disabilities to create accepting school environments, using three interconnected components: Special Olympics Unified Sports®, inclusive of youth leadership and whole-school engagement,” according to the Special Olympics website.

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Cardona said in an interview, “This school got it because throughout its practices in every classroom, in the culture of the school, every student is valued and seen as an asset.

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“Students are engaged in learning with their peers, and as a result, you have a stronger school community and students who understand how to work with people who learn differently.”

Cardona shared with students that when he was growing up, he sometimes felt uncomfortable in school. He felt different from his peers because he comes from a Puerto Rican home. He said the food he ate at home was different, he spoke Spanish before English and listened to Spanish music – things his classmates didn’t.

“I knew I was a little different and, at first, I felt a little bad about it,” Cardona said. “But over time, I learned something: the things that made me different made me special.”

Oak Grove-Bellemeade is a majority minority school. According to September 2021 enrollment data, it had a population of 71.8% black students, 23.6% Hispanic students, 2% white students, 2% mixed-race students, and 0 .5% Asian students.

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Superintendent Jason Kamras led the students in a chant of the division’s motto, “Teach, Lead, and Serve with Love.”

“What that means is that everyone, all of you, are included, welcome and feel at home at school,” Kamras said. “No matter where your family is from, no matter what language you speak at home, no matter what your abilities, everyone is welcome at RPS.”

After he got off the bus Tuesday afternoon, Oak Grove-Bellemeade Elementary students lined up ready to give Cardona, Kamras and other special guests high-fives as they headed to the school cafeteria, where kindergarten students and kindergartners engaged in a variety of activities.

The students played cornhole, walked along a balance beam and “lifted weights” with Cardona. At the weight station, made up of two plastic bottles filled with confetti and held together by a wooden pole, Cardona lifted weights with some of the school’s youngest learners.

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Cardona then went inside the Bellemeade Community Center, where he was greeted by the remaining students of Oak Grove-Bellemeade Elementary. The students applauded “Man in the Mirror” by Michael Jackson, “Happy” by Pharrell Williams and “Love on Top” by Beyonce.

After announcing Oak Grove-Bellemeade Elementary as the Unified Champion School, student ambassadors and special guests participated in a game of cornhole in the community center.

Special Olympics Virginia President David Thomason expressed during Tuesday’s surprise announcement how proud he is of the elementary students.

“Of all the schools in the Central Virginia region, you are the first school to be recognized for your degree of inclusion by Special Olympics North America,” said Thomason.

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“There are a lot of teachers at school, but you are all teachers for us,” he added. “You show us how to live our life. You show us that inclusion is not just an event; [rather]it is a way of living our life.

Cardona kicked off his week-long multi-state bus tour of Tennessee and North Carolina with First Lady Jill Biden on Monday.

The tour aims to show how school communities have been helping students recover and thrive since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. From Virginia, it will stop in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

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